Private-public sector must enable online education, Newsline

By Grant Bodley

JOHANNESBURG – Amnesty International’s recent report, Broken and Unequal: The state of education in South Africa, points out that South Africa is still failing too many of its youth when it comes to education.

But the question remains, have we made progress in widening access to education? Simply put – yes. However, there is a “but”: the report notes that the inequalities between the so-called haves and have-nots is still breeding chronic underperformance and isn’t in any way being tackled effectively in the national agenda.

The gap is clear.

Children in the top 200 schools achieve more distinctions in maths than those in the next 6 600 schools combined.

And for every 100 learners who start school, only half (50–60 percent) will make it to matric, and of this only 40–50 percent will actually pass their final year of school. Most concerning is that just 14 out of 100 students will go onto university, which is a significant handbrake to any growth ambitions we have for our country and our society.

The biggest issue we need to address is narrowing this gap and, over time, closing it. In the face of these numbers, technology can build a much-needed bridge.

While it can’t fix a crumbling classroom, it can facilitate online knowledge sharing. While it can’t compensate for the half-million learners in South Africa who walk over an hour to get to school every morning (where many will receive their only proper meal for the day), it can ensure that learning doesn’t stop if they can’t get to a classroom.

Most critically, it is not about technology as an exclusion. You don’t need the latest version of an iPad to make learning happen. Advanced hardware may offer more power and flexibility, but something as simple as a WhatsApp group still connects learners to the curriculum.

Through programmes like Dimension Data’s Saturday School Programme, which is celebrating 25 years of helping disadvantaged learners bridge learning gaps in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, participants have consistently maintained a 100 percent pass rate and a 93.6 percent university exemption rate, and many have gone to successful careers as actuaries, engineering and coders.

This speaks to far more than corporate giving – rather, it goes straight to the heart of the work that must be done to close the gap in learning that will in the longer-term support the types of skills and knowledge that will transform our country.

Improving education is a central tenant of the National Development Plan, including targets to increase participation rates in higher education by as much as 30 percent, to double the number of scientists and increase the number of PhDs to support growth in innovation and research.

The reality is we won’t get there if we don’t start with the basics – foundational skills in STEM. We will never create future scientists and innovators if we don’t start off on the right foot.

Technology closes this gap and makes sense in a country where mobile penetration is at a high 91.2 percent, with smartphone penetration at around 43 percent.

But access to the kind of technology that facilitates and enables online learning requires data, which remains expensive in South Africa relative to the rest of the world.

There is a clear opportunity for the private sector and government to collaborate.

Free public Wi-Fi networks are scarce, and the cost of data is significantly prohibitive when you’re already living on the breadline.

While the private sector is absolutely committed to play its part, the government needs to come to the party and should be unlocking additional spectrum to incentivise the kind of public-private partnerships that will open up these sorts of education resources for those who need it most. The internet may have democratised information, but it’s up to us to democratising access to it.

And if charity won’t sufficiently motivate the private sector to mobilise investment into areas that lack infrastructure and data access, then perhaps opportunity will.

Townships and rural areas, for example, have already been singled-out as a key focus for future economic development in Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni’s budget speech to the National Council of Provinces in July 2020.

They are also the focus of investment initiatives R1 billion township and rural economy fund and Government’s own five-year Township and Rural Entrepreneurship Programme (TREP). Also, LSM levels within the township vary considerably, especially as higher income earners build formal houses and even luxury residences.

We must prepare the upcoming generation for the future world of work, where more mundane tasks are increasingly becoming automated.

Part of this preparation means developing a natural fluency for technology in young minds not only as a channel that data passes through but as a way of thinking and experiencing the world. This is their right, and it remains our burden and privilege to provide it.

Grant Bodley is the chief executive of Dimension Data.